Michelle Michael talks about the devastating fire and the plans for Weston-super-Mare's GrandPier

PUBLISHED: 13:07 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

Michelle Michael, co-owner of Weston-super-Mare's Grand Pier

Michelle Michael, co-owner of Weston-super-Mare's Grand Pier

Michelle Michael, co-owner of Weston-super-Mare's famous Grand Pier, talks about the devastating fire and the plans to rebuild this historic landmark from the ashes. Photo by Mike Alsford.

Michelle Michael, co-owner of Weston-super-Mare's famous Grand Pier, talks about the devastating fire and the plans to rebuild this historic landmark from the ashes. Photo by Mike Alsford.

At 6.45am on Monday 28 July Michelle Michael received a phone call telling her that the Grand Pier was on fire. Quickly throwing on some clothes, she made the 60-second dash to Weston seafront where firefighters were tackling the blaze in one of the pavilion's towers. As the fire gradually took hold, the black smoke rising into a windless sky could be seen for many miles, and a horrified Michelle watched helplessly as the pavilion began to collapse.

Less than six months after she and her brother, Kerry, became the new owners of Weston-super-Mare's historic Grand Pier, the 75-year-old Art Deco structure had been reduced to a tangled mess of metal. Destroyed along with it was 1.3 million worth of improvements and new entertainment facilities.

Chatting to me in the office of Regency Insurance Brokers, which Michelle runs with her brother, she recalls that terrible day this summer.

She remembers pleading with the fire crews to save the building as they battled with the flames. "I just could not believe what I was seeing. It was horrible."

Meanwhile, Kerry was abroad and watching the nightmare unfolding before his eyes on his laptop. Flying home in time for a press conference later that day, he vowed to work tirelessly to restore the structure.

The cause of the fire is still unknown and the Michaels, who regard themselves as custodians of the pier for the town, were devastated that it happened "on our watch". The pier, which dates back to 1904, means as much to them as it does to generations of Westonians before them.

Michelle, Kerry and their two sisters, Maria and Sophia, grew up in the Somerset resort. Their father, Axentis Michael, had emigrated from Cyprus to the UK in the late 1950s and soon became a well-known hotelier and restaurateur in the town.

Life at their parents' seafront hotel was busy, with the siblings expected to muck in and help out at an early age. "My brother left school at 16 and worked with the family until he was about 21 and then embarked on his own. My sister Sophia and I always wanted to go to university and we both ended up qualifying as lawyers and working in private practice in Bristol."

Michelle joined her brother in business in the mid-1990s. The Michaels have several interests around the country including property developments in Bristol and London, and two restaurants at Cribbs Causeway.

In 2000, they embarked upon a joint garden centre venture in Brent Knoll with brothers Chris and Mike Sanders. Voted UK Garden Centre of the Year in 2007, Sanders GardenWorld was recently sold to Wyevale.

Then the pier came up for sale and Michelle and Kerry had the opportunity to buy part of their history. "We grew up looking at it every day from the hotel; it was on our landscape, part of our upbringing," says Michelle. "So, looking at the pier from the hotel the evening after the fire and seeing what was left was hideous."

The family have been moved by the huge number of messages of support and goodwill they have received from locals and holidaymakers, many of whom attended a special memorial service celebrating the life of the pier. Michelle shows me one letter from a lady who recalls visiting the pier with the Salvation Army as a child. Years later she got engaged on the pier and brought her children and grandchildren to the attraction.

"That's one of the reasons you feel so responsible, because people have their memories - as do we."

This was not the first fire in the pier's 104-year-old history. A blaze destroyed the old Pavilion Theatre in 1930.

Many of the charred remains from the recent fire, such as melted coins, burnt arcade games and even a lamp post, are now on display at the North Somerset Museum. But it is business as usual at the front of the pier, which has remained open with entertainment, music and refreshments for visitors.

And there are plans to create a scale model of the pier before the fire, which will be exhibited on the pier once rebuilding is complete, which is expected to be in 2010.

A planning application is due to be submitted this month following a competition between six architect firms to find the right design for the future. Members of the public gave their views on the designs after they went on display in the town.

Michelle says: "The Grand Pier is the focal point of the bay and if we get it right it will become Weston's premier all-year-round attraction. It's important that it kicks off regeneration in the town."

Mike Alsford is happy to carry out portrait shoots for both professional and private clients. For more information visit www.alsfordpictures.com.

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